China Is Using Tibetans as Agents of Empire in the Himalayas
What life is like for the quarter-million residents of fortress villages in Tibet.
In April 1998, with the Himalayan passes still more than 6 feet deep in snow, Penpa Tsering, a 22-year-old Tibetan herder, set off to the south from his home in Tibet across a remote 15,700-foot-high pass called the Namgung La. He was leading a train of a dozen yaks carrying tsampa (parched barley flour), rice, and fodder.
In April 1998, with the Himalayan passes still more than 6 feet deep in snow, Penpa Tsering, a 22-year-old Tibetan herder, set off to the south from his home in Tibet across a remote 15,700-foot-high pass called the Namgung La. He was leading a train of a dozen yaks carrying tsampa (parched barley flour), rice, and fodder.
Penpa Tsering had been dispatched by the village leader of Lagyab, a settlement in Lhodrak county nearly 7 miles northeast of the Namgung La as the crow flies, to take desperately needed supplies to four other Tibetan herders who were spending the winter in a remote grassland area at 14,200 feet on the south side of the pass. Without the food that Penpa Tsering’s yaks were carrying, the herders would not survive the winter. After one day and one night of walking, Penpa Tsering reached his fellow herders and saved their lives. They later said they had expected to die. But Penpa Tsering never made it back to Lagyab: He died in an avalanche as he tried to find his way back across the pass.
In the Chinese media reports on which this account is based, Penpa Tsering’s death is presented as an act of martyrdom, a minor figure in the pantheon of China’s model citizens. His sacrifice, however, was unnecessary. The men he saved were overwintering in the high pasturelands not to improve their lives or to help their flocks but as pawns in an imperial project designed and driven by politicians in Beijing, 1,600 miles away. Today, that project has expanded into a vast network of quasi-militarized settlements along—and sometimes across—China’s Himalayan borders. Its purpose is to strengthen China’s geopolitical position in the region; it has little or nothing to do with the welfare or interests of the herders. But it cannot function without them.
No nomad freely overwinters in a tent at more than 14,000 feet on the south side of the eastern Himalayas, where storms and snowfall are especially dangerous and access is impossible for six months of the year. Normally, the four men on the south side of the pass would have returned months earlier to the shelter of their families and homes in Lagyab, only a 29-mile walk away and 2,300 feet lower in altitude, long before winter had set in. But someone in the Chinese bureaucracy had decided for reasons that seem obvious, but in fact are not, that the site of the nomad’s camp was “very important and someone needs to be stationed there all year-round.”
The reason for that decision lay in a new territorial claim by China. As Foreign Policy detailed in Part 1 of this investigation, the Namgung La marks the traditional border between Tibet and Bhutan. Thirty years after China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, Beijing changed its view of that border and declared that a 232-square-mile area of northern Bhutan, lying to the south of the Namgung La, had once belonged to Tibet and therefore was now part of China. That area was the Beyul Khenpajong, a remote and uninhabited region, famous throughout the Himalayas as a “hidden valley,” that is exceptionally sacred to the Bhutanese.
China’s claim was based on a 200-year-old document that described a Tibetan monastery called Lhalung as having grazing rights in the Beyul. However, cross-border grazing has been a normal practice in the Himalayas for centuries, with herders from neighboring countries often sharing summer pastures without any implications regarding state sovereignty and, in this case, apparently without conflict in the past. But any hope of cross-border harmony among herders in the Beyul ended on Sept. 30, 1995, when four nomads, together with 62 yaks, were sent over the Namgung La to settle the area permanently. Their mission was to deter Bhutanese herders from grazing their flocks in the area and through their presence to assert China’s claim to the territory.
Since its annexation of Tibet in 1950, Beijing has made numerous claims to territory along its Himalayan borders, transforming complicated local Tibetan histories of cross-border grazing, monastic claims, and family tradition into state-level claims by China. The nomads sent to settle in the Beyul—Mingyur Tashi, Sonam Choephel, Tsewang Tenzin, and Phuntsog Norbu—had been chosen for specific reasons. Before China’s takeover of Tibet, Sonam Choephel, born in 1939, had been a herder tied to the monastery of Lhalung, and members of his family had grazed their yaks in the Beyul in the past. After 1950, Sonam Choephel and the other three nomads, like millions of other Tibetans, became Chinese citizens, dependent on the new state for their survival in terms of how or where they could live, trade, travel, obtain loans, buy goods, settle disputes, or fulfill their other needs. The four nomads probably had little problem with resuming summer grazing in the Beyul when sent there in 1995—it was, after all, an area with important and auspicious associations for Buddhists—but they must have had deep reservations about being asked to risk their lives by overwintering there, contrary to all traditional herding practice and to common sense.
Even in state media accounts, the effort it took to persuade the four Tibetans to take on the task is palpable. The man who won them over was the newly appointed head of Lagyab village, a Tibetan named Kunsang Tenzin, then 27 years old. Mingyur Tashi and Sonam Choephel were his uncles, and Tsewang Tenzin and Phuntsog Norbu were cousins or close relatives. Kunsang Tenzin relied on family ties to obtain their agreement, but even so, it took him “constant persuasion” and “ideological work over and over again” to get them to agree. He said later that he had focused on three issues: history, family loyalty, and the kindness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On the one hand, he told them the Beyul was Chinese territory and it was their duty to guard it; on the other hand, he told them his career (and, by implication, the family’s future prospects) would be at stake if they did not agree: “You are my closest relatives. How can I lead other folks if you don’t support my job?” After two weeks, Kunsang Tenzin’s four relatives finally agreed to move to the Beyul. Their purpose, as described by Chinese journalists years later, was “to protect the pastures of our ancestors and the territory of the motherland.”
For Kunsang Tenzin, a young official trying to find a place inside the party-state, the dispatch of the nomads was a minor political triumph, a success to be reported to his superiors that would much later win him a number of accolades from the party. For his relatives, it was a sentence of effective exile. At the outset, the claim to the Beyul may have originated from within the local community, hoping to get China to allow herders to access traditional summer pasturelands across the border. China’s aim from the start, however, was not to support seasonal grazing but to claim sovereignty over neighboring territory. Once the government found the document supporting the claim to the Beyul, Chinese leaders must have seen Kunsang Tenzin’s role and influence among his relatives and in the community as the crucial link that would enable them to turn a historical claim on paper into actual repossession of that land by descendants of those who had used it in the past.
For the next 20 years, the four nomads passed each winter in the Beyul alone, at first in tents and later in a two-room tin-roofed shack that they constructed, without electricity, running water, or any contact with the outside world from November to May each year. Mingyur Tashi, now 63 years old, described in an interview last year with Chinese journalists what conditions in the Beyul were like in the early years: “The place where we lived was small and simple. The four of us huddled together and slept next to each other. There was no stove for cooking, so we had to get materials from around us, and the stones were built into simple firepits. … Often there was heavy snow and heavy rain outside and light snow and light rain inside.” Even more unbearable, Mingyur Tashi later told more than one Chinese journalist, was “the damp rain and the extreme cold,” as well as the complete isolation from their families and the outside world for six months of the year. Those journalists noted that Mingyur Tashi had become severely deformed because of rheumatism and that his fellow herder Sonam Choephel, now 83 years old, had “severe rheumatoid arthritis and severe deformation, swelling, and redness of many finger and toe joints as a result of the 25 years of grazing and guarding the border.” Both men have snow blindness and other ailments.
Mingyur Tashi and his fellow herders were not forgotten: Each summer, Kunsang Tenzin, now party secretary of Lagyab, organized them to carry out small actions to remind Bhutan of China’s claim. These included driving yak herds over land grazed by Bhutanese herders in the Beyul, demanding tax payments from the Bhutanese herders, planting Chinese flags on peaks, and painting the word “China” on rocks throughout the area in Chinese characters, a script and language that the Tibetan herders did not know. By 2005, harassment of this kind had led local Bhutanese herders to abandon their traditional northern grazing grounds in the Beyul and to move farther south.
Bhutan had small units of border troops stationed in the Beyul each summer, but their priority was to protect the Bhutanese herders in the border area rather than the borders themselves, and they depended on those herders for their supplies. So, once the herders moved south, the soldiers moved with them. At the same time, Chinese officials were accommodating in response to protests by the Bhutanese government about the actions of the Tibetan herders in the Beyul, promising to reduce or end their activities there and, in 2013, even arranging for the Bhutanese to carry out a survey of the Beyul together with their Chinese counterparts. Conflicts with cross-border herders were normal in border areas of Bhutan, and Bhutanese officials may not have been certain at that time that the harassment in the Beyul was coordinated by the Chinese state. Neither would the Bhutanese have ever imagined that China would start large-scale settlement within Bhutan: That had never happened before anywhere along China’s borders in the Himalayas.
Looking back, however, there were increasing signs that the actions of the herders in the Beyul were part of a long-term Chinese strategy. In the summer of 2011, 16 years after they had arrived, the four herders were acknowledged for the first time in Chinese media, which reported that two junior Tibetan members of the CCP had visited the four nomads that summer to endorse their “work on the front line of border defense.” In the fall of 2013, Zhao Tianwu, the party secretary of Lhodrak county, visited the nomads’ camp and gave each of them 3,000 yuan as a gift—equivalent to about $487, a significant amount given that the average annual income of herders at the time was 6,500 yuan. It was the first report of any material support by the state for Mingyur Tashi and his fellow herders, whose only source of income was from their herds.
Although Chinese media described the Beyul as “the sacred land of our country since ancient times,” in fact officials had not sent the four men there in order to acquire the territory for China. They may never have been told this, and it is never mentioned in Chinese media reports about the herders or the settlement project, but China’s claim to the Beyul was purely a bargaining device: Beijing had, in fact, no wish to keep the land for which the herders had risked their lives and for which Penpa Tsering had died. China’s aim was to obtain certain pockets of territory on Bhutan’s western borders that would give China a military advantage over India, and it had told Bhutan from as early as 1990 that it would renounce the claim to the Beyul if Bhutan would give China those western areas.
Bhutan, however—committed by a 2007 treaty to respect India’s national security interests and under pressure from New Delhi—did not accept the so-called package deal from Beijing. At the same time, concerns were growing in Beijing about security along China’s 2,100-mile-long border with India, where tensions were rapidly increasing. In 2015, China stepped up pressure on Bhutan: It began construction in the Beyul. That year, work began on a road from Lagyab across the Namgung La into Bhutan’s territory. By October 2018, the construction of Gyalaphug, the first village in the Beyul, had been completed. Other villages and infrastructure followed. For the first time, the four nomads had modern housing, electricity, neighbors, and the full spectrum of support from China’s governmental system.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had made his concerns about the border in Tibet clear immediately after coming to power in 2013. That year, he ordered officials to implement a new policy for Tibet, saying, “To govern the country well, we must first govern the borders well.” At the time, this policy was presented as being about boosting economic development in the 21 border counties in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the term China uses for the central and western parts of the Tibetan Plateau. But Xi’s “govern the borders” policy in Tibet has turned out to have little to do with economics—it is primarily a major drive to enhance security along the Sino-Indian border. That effort involves building villages along all of Tibet’s borders, including those with Bhutan and Nepal, and deploying the new residents of those villages as plainclothes security teams, alongside military and police units.
The Origins of Xi’s Border Tactics
Xi’s border policy in Tibet appears to have been triggered by the work of a scholar named Sun Chunri (himself ethnically Korean), who studied communities living along China’s border with North Korea. Sun noted in 2010 that China’s overall development strategy, which aimed to draw rural people into towns, had a serious side effect: It was leading to a population outflow from villages on China’s border and thus was “hollowing out” the border villages. As Sun put it, this had created “hidden dangers in terms of the security of the border areas and the infiltration of foreign forces into the area.” “Pay attention, and take necessary countermeasures,” he advised. Other academics produced research pointing out not just that border villages were emptying out but that the remaining residents in most border areas were not ethnically Chinese. As a result, as these scholars phrased it, “many border residents have weak national awareness.” One analyst, Hu Meishu, noted that even though Vietnam was small, it had been smarter than China: It had incentivized its citizens to move to villages bordering China, from where they could influence those of the same ethnicity on the other side of the border, creating a threat to national security. Hu and other Chinese scholars insisted that, besides strengthening the national consciousness and identity of border residents, as a matter of urgency China needed to attract immigrants to consolidate borders. This appears to have been the rationale behind Xi’s decision to refocus Tibet policy on repopulating border areas in order to strengthen national security.
Gyalaphug was considered a “demonstration border village” for the new border strategy, one of the first of its kind to be completed in the TAR, and once the construction work was finished, approximately 40 Tibetans were sent to live with the original four settlers. It was one of 604 “well-off border villages” built in the TAR between 2017 and the end of 2020 (except for Gyalaphug, two other villages in the Beyul, a village in western Bhutan, and one in northeastern India, all are believed to be within China’s borders) at a total cost of 30 billion yuan ($4.6 billion); 24 more are due for completion this year. They stretch from Tibet’s border with Ladakh in India’s far northwest to China’s border with Myanmar, 1,200 miles to the southeast as the crow flies. Chinese plans say, with typical certainty, that 241,835 people will have been moved into the new villages by the end of 2021 and that the repopulating of Tibet’s borders will have been accomplished.
This is not an entirely new strategy. China, like other empires, has a long history of relocating loyal subjects to bolster vulnerable border areas. The Qing emperors had created tuntian—military-agricultural colonies—of settlers and soldiers in southern Manchuria and Xinjiang in the 1650s to hold off the Russians. In the late 19th century, the Qing introduced a policy called yimin shibian (“move people to strengthen the border”), putting aside earlier concerns about expansion by ethnic Han Chinese and sending several million of them to settle the northern Manchurian borders in the 1890s and the Inner Mongolian grasslands from 1901 onward. In the early 1950s, the CCP sent 175,000 demobilized Chinese soldiers to settle the Xinjiang borders to defend them against Soviet incursions. Those soldiers and their successors were organized into a paramilitary provincial-level unit known as the bingtuan, which now includes about 2.7 million Chinese settlers.
But the current wave of strategic border settlement in Tibet has two major differences from earlier efforts. Firstly, unlike the land in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang, most of the Tibetan border areas are extremely difficult to farm or live in. Gyalaphug is at 14,200 feet above sea level, around the same height as the Matterhorn in the Alps, and few besides Tibetans have the genetic or physiological adaptation required to live comfortably at that altitude or the detailed knowledge needed to herd yaks. In the case of the Beyul, since China is basing its claim on late 18th-century grazing rights, China needs Tibetans to carry out the settlement, as almost no Chinese lived in Tibet before the 1950s. (Still today, most ethnic Chinese settlers in Tibet live in urban areas.) Han settler colonization is thus not an option at this time in the new border villages. Instead, China has to move Tibetans into the new border villages at high altitudes instead of ethnic Chinese. This raises the risk for China that the new residents along the borders, being Tibetans, might harbor “un-Chinese” thoughts and divided loyalties. This, in turn, leads Chinese officials to develop yet more mechanisms to manage the political education of the new border residents.
China has already relocated a quarter of a million Tibetans within the TAR and up to twice as many in other Tibetan areas within China in the last five years. But the logic of those earlier programs ran entirely counter to that of the border villages: The official narrative underlying relocation in Tibet was that Tibetans had to be moved from remote, high-altitude areas to lower-altitude locations nearer cities where they could engage with the cash economy, find off-farm employment, and live a more prosperous life. Border villages like Gyalaphug, however, require Tibetans to relocate from lower altitudes to much higher ones and in even more remote locations. This is even more the case with Menchuma, another village just constructed by the Chinese in Bhutanese territory, 22 miles east of Gyalaphug: It is not only 1,200 feet higher than Gyalaphug, making it among the highest settlements in the world, but has been built on an exposed ridge not much lower than Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.
Areas Claimed by China in Bhutan
China claims four areas in the west of Bhutan, three in the north, and Sakteng in the east. Since 1990, China has been offering to give up approximately 191 square miles of its claims in the north if Bhutan yields some 104 square miles of its territory in the west to China. Bhutan relinquished its claim to the Kula Khari area (often written as Kulha Kangri) in the 1980s or soon after, attributing its earlier claim to a cartographic error.
Chinese Settlement and Infrastructure in Northern Bhutan
Since 2015, China has established three villages, seven roads, and at least five military or police outposts in the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley. These are documented in official Chinese reports and videos. Other sites shown here are visible on satellite images and are possible security infrastructure or outposts but have not been conclusively identified. (The red dots on the map represent the locations of the border villages and possible or confirmed Chinese security sites.) Official Chinese maps until at least the 1980s showed the border with Bhutan as running through the Namgung La and Bod La passes but now include the Beyul and the Menchuma Valley as parts of China, although both are south of those passes. (Most official Chinese maps also claim the Chagdzom area.) Bhutan’s definition of the border, which is generally accepted internationally, runs about 2 miles north of the Namgung La.
China has squared the circle by invoking national interests. All the residents of the new villages are called on to accept their new lives in remote locations for the sake of China’s sacred territory. Numerous official media articles describe Tibetan relocatees at Gyalaphug and countless other new border villages as having “the sacredness of the motherland … embedded in their lives” so that “every positive and conscious action in ordinary life is a concrete manifestation of the original spirit of the Chinese border people’s patriotism and love for their homes.” The residents are organized into plainclothes security teams that patrol the borders, checking for other Tibetans trying to flee into exile and stopping supposed “agents of the Dalai” (Chinese media omit the respectful term “Lama” when referring to the Tibetan leader) from infiltrating from abroad in order to foment pro-independence ideas in Tibet.
There is no way to know the real views or motives of the Tibetans involved in these operations—researchers cannot freely visit Tibet and interviewees would be at risk of serious punishment by the state if they indicated anything other than compliance with official views. But some at least view this work as a kind of deal with the Chinese state: “The country helps me get rich, and I guard the border for the motherland,” as Kunsang Tenzin, the village leader who organized the Lagyab herders, put it. In other words, if China provides material benefits, in return Tibetans work as high-altitude guards and provide profuse declarations of Chinese patriotism to visiting Chinese journalists and officials.
Little is left to chance, however, and the new border guards must themselves be guarded. The villagers in Gyalaphug share their space with a number of security teams—there seems to be a police unit, a unit of border police from the National Immigration Administration (NIA), a military platoon, and a team of epidemic management staff in the village, as well as larger military units stationed nearby. Many of the members of these teams, judging from photographs, are ethnic Chinese sent to the village on rotation. The villagers in each border village have to join forces with these security units to form “joint defense teams” that include villagers, uniformed security forces, and party representatives. The use of these teams in the border villages is part of a new emphasis on civilian-military cooperation in the border areas of Tibet, reminiscent of the Qing tuntian schemes and a key feature of new villages.
It is not clear whom the numerous guards and outposts in the Beyul are looking for. It is vanishingly unlikely that any separatist infiltrator sent by the so-called Dalai clique has tried to cross from Bhutan into Tibet in recent decades or is ever likely to. As for Bhutan, it poses no security threat to China, and it is unlikely that China’s principal adversary, India, plans an advance into northern Bhutan. In other Tibetan border areas, border guards are tasked with catching Tibetans who try to flee from China to Nepal, but there is no flight route through Bhutan. It seems that the elaborate security apparatus in the Beyul is part political display and part a constant reminder to Tibetans of imaginary enemies inside and outside China—and of the power of the state.
The villagers also have to be educated in the national narrative. Beside security forces, Gyalaphug, like every village in the TAR since 2011, has a “village-resident cadre work team” made up of officials sent from other areas of the TAR to live with the villagers for a year or more at a time. Their job is to provide “guidance” and support. In 2020, the cadre team at Gyalaphug was composed not of bureaucrats but of police from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. They were members of a unit within the NIA—the security force that manages the borders—called the Anti-Terrorist Special Investigation Team. Normally trained to handle incidents such as hostage crises, in 2020 these police were sent to educate and guide the villagers in Gyalaphug.
During their year in the village, the anti-terrorist cadres held training courses for young men in the village in methods for overpowering intruders and would-be escapees. At the same time, they set up the village branch of the CCP. Mingyur Tashi was elected to be the party secretary of Gyalaphug and in 2020 was succeeded in that position by his son, Migmar Samdrup. On paper, this made them the leaders of the village, but, in true colonial fashion, their titles turned out to be nominal: The party sent a full-time cadre from another area, described as the “first secretary” of Gyalaphug, to run the village because “the masses there do not understand the various national policies and guidelines and there are problems with low ideological awareness.”
The visiting cadres have been busy, like all such cadre teams in Tibetan villages, attending to the needs of the village residents. On the one hand, this involves political education, which currently consists of memorizing and studying principles known as the “Four Emphases and Four Loves,” as well as Xi’s “important teachings about governing the frontiers.” On the other hand, the anti-terrorist cadre team has focused on practical ways of helping the villagers: firstly, researching and introducing techniques for growing mushrooms and vegetables in greenhouses and, secondly, providing furniture. According to the cadre team’s report, after lengthy meetings with the village party committee, the team concluded that new furniture was required, and, at a cost of 30,000 yuan—about $4,300—per household, the cadres arranged for trucks from China to deliver 10 TV cabinets, 30 Tibetan tables, 40 sets of Tibetan beds and straw mats, 20 pairs of Tibetan-style backrests, 10 sets of Tibetan-style sofas, and 10 tea tables, as well as TV sets, freezers, disinfection cabinets, and butter separators.
Judging from photographs published by the cadre team, at least 10 homes in Gyalaphug now include what looks roughly like an elaborately overdecorated Western-style living room from the 1950s; each even has a glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the living room, much as is found in many parts of China. Before receiving new homes or fittings, all residents in China’s newly constructed “well-off border villages” in Tibet have to pose for an official photograph holding signs declaring their gratitude to the party and the state for their generosity, and the Gyalaphug villagers, too, had to line up with the cadre team for an official photograph once their furniture arrived.
The cadre teams in Gyalaphug also have to find new ways for the herders to generate income because China has decided to phase out nomadism throughout the country, including yak herding in Tibetan areas. The development plan for the village, as with all of China’s new border villages in Tibet, is to “accelerate border tourism,” which means bringing domestic tourists to view the glories of China’s newly recovered territory. The Beyul is now being marketed as the “White Jade Secret Realm,” and, according to Migmar Samdrup, Gyalaphug’s party secretary, the villagers “are eager to eat ‘tourist rice’” and to “embark on the ‘prosperity road.’”
Chinese media reports provide no hint of any deficiency or doubt about these developments in Gyalaphug or any other border village. But those reports have an unusual feature: Religion, a key aspects of Tibetan life, is not visible. There is no sign of any Buddhist shrine, stupa, monastery, monk, statue, thangka, butter lamp, or prayer flag in any photograph or footage about any of the new border villages, including Gyalaphug, and no mention of religion in any article about them. Religious belief and practice are surely present in the villagers’ private lives, but they have been excised from the public record.
Nor is there any sign that Tibetans have a significant role in leadership: Of the eight senior officials who have visited Gyalaphug or Menchuma in recent years, all except one, the most junior, have been ethnic Chinese.
These are reminders that China’s border project in Tibet is not just about security, geopolitics, or instilling loyalty among Tibetans. It is, more precisely, an unusually extreme form of colonial management in which Indigenous beliefs, leadership, and local knowledge are sidelined.
This is evident in the efforts of officials to persuade Tibetans to move to these new villages. Some villagers are no doubt content for various reasons to be relocated to border areas, and in many cases relocatees even contribute to the costs of their new housing. But for those who are reluctant, the process of persuasion is extraordinarily intense. The process, which draws on the implementation of chaiqian (demolition and relocation) projects throughout China, is a much larger and more organized version of the methods that Kunsang Tenzin used against his relatives to get them to overwinter in the Beyul in the first place. From academic research in other parts of the Tibetan Plateau and reports published by local administrations in the TAR, we now know that officials generally follow a standard method to obtain consent to relocation, described in some texts as “identify the right breakthrough point, aim at the right foothold, and focus on the right point to push.” In practice, this involves firstly a survey of villagers’ needs, then an offer of relocation shaped as a response to those needs, and finally a form of direct pressure if consent has not been given. The third stage typically involves bringing in a senior official to lecture the delinquent member or tasking a younger family member to persuade the elder to concede. (See Box 2.)
Alongside pressure, there are also incentives. Although the four original herders in Gyalaphug received no pay or subsidy for many years, since at least 2017 an annual cash subsidy of 1,700 yuan ($251) has been paid to relocatees in front-line villages in Tibet. By 2021, this amount had been increased to 12,000 yuan ($1,854)—almost certainly a sign that many Tibetans were extremely reluctant to relocate to the new border villages. The residents of Gyalaphug receive an even higher amount: 20,000 yuan a year ($3,090), 2.5 times the current average rural disposable income in Tibet. These incentives point to some of the motivations, both coercive and persuasive, that lie behind the reports in Chinese media of patriotic Tibetan border residents who “spontaneously spray party flags and national flag patterns on the cliffs to express their gratitude and love for the party and the government.”
The Power of Persuasion in Tibet
How persuasion works in practice is documented in a rare media report about a village called Doka in Metog, on Tibet’s southeastern border with India. In 2017, a number of villagers in Doka had complained about plans to move them to a new border village because, they said, the elevation of the relocation site was too high, the new houses were too small, and they were anyway unwilling to leave the place where they had lived for generations. As a result, 11 out of the 31 families in Doka had not agreed to move. In December that year, a visiting team of Chinese officials from the eastern province of Guangdong arrived in the village. Under the leadership of a Chinese official named Xie Guogao, the team carried out “hard ideological work” with the dissenting villagers. Xie told the 11 families that the authorities had “invested a lot of manpower, material, and financial resources to build the resettlement sites” and added that once those new sites were completed, the current roads to Doka would “no longer be repaired [and therefore] future generations can only be able to enter and exit on foot, making life very inconvenient.” He added a further warning, of a type often reported from such meetings, that if the current offer was not accepted, the next offer “may not be as good.”
The 11 dissenting families still declined to give consent. So, in January 2019, Xie and his team returned to Doka for the third “relocation for poverty alleviation mobilization” visit. By then, his team had realized that the 11 families were all related to a single elder, named in a report as Ding X, who appears from photographs to be a ngagpa, or lay tantric practitioner. So, on the third visit, Xie’s team first “mobilized” Ding’s grandson—a student of one of Xie’s assistants—to persuade his grandfather to agree to move by giving a “child’s perspective,” meaning probably that the student told his grandfather that relocation would be essential for the boy’s career.
The following morning, Xie went with two Tibetan officials to Ding’s home to try to persuade him and his family to agree to move. Still unsuccessful, Xie then convened a meeting of the village to which Ding was summoned. Sitting on either side of Ding, Xie and two other Chinese officials, along with two photographers and translators, “criticized Ding X for using his status as an elder and his religious status to obstruct the relocation” and “pointed out that being an elder means to be considerate of future generations and that someone who does not consider future generations is not a good elder.” That afternoon, before leaving, the team arranged for two students from Doka and the son of one official to do further work to “mobilize their relatives and family to relocate.” The result is not reported, but it seems unlikely that Ding was able to continue to resist.
Kunsang Tenzin, now 53 years old, still plays a leading role in Gyalaphug, supervising visitors, meeting streams of journalists, leading the construction work, and accompanying the patrols to mark the boundary and hoist Chinese flags. “We need to build and consolidate the frontiers of the great motherland. … Life is getting happier,” as he put it. In recent years, the state has recognized his work and dedication: He was listed as one of the National Civil Servants With Most Popular Satisfaction in 2013, as one of the Good Men of China in 2018, and, on May 14, he was nominated as one of China’s National Moral Models of 2021.
Yet he remains a township official, the lowest level in the Chinese system. In interviews, he has said that despite numerous offers, he prefers to remain in his birthplace because there “his personal future will be related to the destiny of a beautiful homeland and closely linked to the sovereignty of the country.” It is more likely, however, that his Chinese masters, few if any of whom can speak Tibetan, recognize that only a local Tibetan would have any hope of persuading other Tibetans to risk their lives and health for a quarter century in order to help Beijing pursue its geopolitical ambitions.
Twenty-three years after Penpa Tsering died, the efforts of the four herders from Lagyab have seen China’s border security enhanced, Bhutan placed under increasing diplomatic pressure, and border infrastructure modernized. The herders of Gyalaphug now live in modern homes and will soon be eating tourist rice. But the prospects of any change in the ethnically stratified, colonial nature of China’s administration in Tibet have become more, not less, remote.
Robert Barnett is a writer and researcher on modern Tibetan history and politics. He is a professorial research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, an affiliate researcher at King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, and a senior research fellow with Hong Kong Baptist University. He was the founder-director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.
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